As with World War II veterans, there will soon come a time when we will lose the last of the Holocaust survivors and the chance to hear their stories. That inalterable fact lends an undeniable urgency to Claire Ferguson’s Destination Unknown, which revolves around interviews with 12 elderly survivors. The film’s producer, Llion Roberts, filmed them over a 13-year period, and some have since passed away. So, yes, there have been countless Holocaust-themed documentaries released in recent years. But Destination Unknown represents a worthy addition to the canon if only for its historical importance.
The film interweaves the survivors’ accounts with archival footage and photographs, but unlike many similarly themed documentaries, it features no narration or commentary by historians or academics.
The most visually haunting sequence occurs at the pic’s beginning, when we see survivor Edward Mosberg silently donning a replica of the striped uniform he wore as a prisoner. He proceeds to visit the Mauthausen concentration camp, where he was imprisoned during the war and where he now participates in educational programs.
The stories that the survivors relate are by now depressingly familiar. Some are inspirational, such as the accounts about Christian friends and neighbors who provided them refuge, thereby risking their own lives. Others are obviously horrific, including the stories of being herded into impossibly crowded railroad cars with no knowledge of where they were going (hence the film’s title).
Several of the subjects tell of personal experiences with the notorious concentration camp commandant Amon Goth, played so memorably by Ralph Fiennes in Steven Spielberg’s classic Schindler’s List. They describe how he used his dogs as weapons and spent free time shooting prisoners from his balcony just for the fun of it. The documentary also includes the first filmed interview with Mietek Pemper, Goth’s personal secretary, who was instrumental in providing Oskar Schindler with the names that would go on his famous list.
Ultimately, it’s the manner in which the various survivors dealt with their trauma in the intervening years that gives Destination Unknown its most emotional moments. One man says that he had the prisoner number tattooed on his arm surgically removed. Another wonders why she was the only member of her family to survive and admits that she can’t bear to look at the pictures of those who did not. But it’s one man in particular who defiantly, and wonderfully, has the last word.
“My grandchildren are my answer to Hitler’s final solution,” he proclaims.
Production company: Gigatel CYF
Distributor: Seventh Art Releasing
Director-editor: Claire Ferguson
Screenwriter: Jonathan Key
Producer: Llion Roberts
Executive producers: Christopher Hird, Stephen D. Smith
Directors of photography: Malcolm Owen, Rhys Williams
Composer: Andrew Skeet